How To Become A Screenwriter - Ultimate Guide

In this article you will learn how to become a Screenwriter

This is a complete guide going from how to write a script to forging a career in the film industry. I will also link to the best resources out there for upcoming screenwriters so that you have everything you need all in one place.

Alongside this article I also interviewed professional screenwriter John August (Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, Aladdin). John has just launched his new app Highland 2 which aims to make the script writing process as easy as possible.

You can read the full interview with John August here!

Lets Get Started!

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Stage 1 - Job Role Breakdown

Is Screenwriting the right job for you?

Film industry jobs can look glamorous from the outside. The reality is this industry is full of very tough, competitive job roles that have no guarantee of success.

According to the Atlantic, only 3% of screenplays registered at the WGA (Writers Guide Of America) are made into films. Simple put, there are easier ways out there to make a living as a writer. You will only know if this is the right career for you through practice and from working in the industry.

- Screenwriter Job Description –

A screenwriter writes the films screenplay, They do this either based on an original idea, by adapting an existing story or by joining an existing project

What to expect from this job?

Screenwriters are almost always freelancers.

They might get hired from having a spec script commissioned or to work as part of a team of writers (typical for a TV series).

More then other writing jobs, screenwriting is typically a collaborative process. Even if you sell a film script, you may have to work with the director/producer to make changes.

The plus side of screenwriting is that if you do sell a screenplay, you can make very good money (typically about 2% of the films overall budget goes to the screenwriter). As well as having your story watched by a huge audience.

Story expert Michael Hauge gives a breakdown of the right and wrong reasons to be a screenwriter for the Writers Store

More people saw last week’s episode of ‘The West Wing’ than have read ‘Gone With the Wind’. Makes you stop and think, doesn’t it?
— Michael Hauge

Stage 2 - How to write a script

Before you begin to write a screenplay you will need to understand the film script format.

This is not a difficult thing to learn, there are thousands of screenplays online that can be downloaded and read for free.

Screenwriting blogger Sam Wilson shares a list of the best places for reading screenplays online for free for Any Possibility

Screenwriter and Author John August has also developed an app that can help you format your screenplay whilst writing. You can now download Highland 2 from the Mac App store.

The basics of film script format:

  • Scripts are written in Courier 12 point font

  • The scene header is written in capital letters

  • On the scene header label whether a scene takes place interior ( INT ) or exterior (EXT)

  • Also on the scene header, label the scene location and time of day that the scene takes place (DAY, NIGHT)

  • When a character is first introduced their name is in Caps

  • Dialogue is formatted in the middle of the script

  • A characters name appears above their dialogue

Download and read the screenplay of one your favourite films. This is the easiest way to learn how to write in film script format.

screeplay example highland 2
Screenshots of the script writing app Highland 2

Screenshots of the script writing app Highland 2

Stage 3 - Developing your talent

To become a good screenwriter you will need to practice writing.

It might be easier to begin your writing career with short films. You can watch short films and read their screenplays online. A short film screenplay could be as anywhere from one page to thirty pages long.

After you have completed your script you could either make the film yourself or try to find local filmmakers to make it.

Facebook is a good place to connect with local filmmakers. There may also be filmmaking clubs in your area that could help you get your film made.

I created a list of filmmaking Facebook groups - Find here

You might also wish to attend a class on screenwriting. This could be a short workshop or full-time education at a film school. A degree is not needed to become a screenwriter but higher education in a subject relevant to it (such as English or media) could be useful. You will need to decide for yourself what type of education you are best suited towards.

There are a number of books out there on screenwriting. You can either buy these or find them in your local library. Popular recommended books on screenwriting are – Save The Cat, The Writers Journey and Writing Movie’s for Fun and Profit.

screenwriting books
screenwriting books

You can find plenty of resources online. Screenwriter John August also has a popular weekly podcast called Scriptnotes.

To become a successful screenwriter you will need to know plenty of people working within the film industry. Helping out on low budget films and attending networking events, even at the start of your career could be beneficial.

Stage 4 - Work route options

Like all creative job roles, there is no one right path to screenwriting.

You might find a job within the film industry or have another day job as you write your screenplays.

If you wish to work in film any job could help you network in the industry. Typical first-time jobs for future screenwriters are production assistant and writers assistant. A writers assistant is a very competitive job role. Screenwriting blogger Sam Wilson has a great post on how to get this job on her blog – read here.

Starting out on smaller projects could give you a foot in the industry door. Smaller production companies and creative agencies hire writers for various projects. Consider other screenwriting jobs when starting out such as writing for commercials, corporate videos, and online content.

Hollywood Screenwriter

LA is not the only place for screenwriters to find work. Keep in mind that you can have a career within your own local industry. Technically you can become a screenwriter living anywhere in the world but living in LA will help if Hollywood is your goal.

Basically, if your life’s dream is to become a giant Hollywood screenwriter, then you need to
live in Hollywood. If you have different goals — indie films, for example, your options are
much more open.
— John August

Writing for Television

Television shows hire a team of writers. Once again you will need industry experience and examples of your writing before finding work. TV writer Lee Goldberg talks about the career routes for breaking into television writing for the Writer’s Store.

Another route is to try and get a job as a writer/producer’s assistant on an hour-long drama. You will only get a meager salary, but you will see how a show works from the inside
— Lee Goldberg

If you look at the work routes of various famous screenwriters you will find that their careers all started differently. Study the careers of writers who are based in your own country and are currently working on similar projects that you aspire to write for.

Stage 5 - Promoting Your Work

When you have written a screenplay you are proud of you will want to get it made.

Even if this particular screenplay does not reach production, putting yourself out there could lead to future work.

Write spec scripts

Spec scripts are screenplays that you write without being commissioned to do so. You write them for free in your own time. This is a script (for TV or features) that showcases your talent. It’s a good idea to have a handful of spec scripts that you could potentially showcase to producers as examples of your work. Sam writes in more detail on spec scripts here.

Enter competitions

A win at a major screenwriting competition will get your script read by agents and producers. You can often enter these competitions no matter where you live in the world. A list of the top competitions for feature film scripts can be found here.

Be sure to conduct your own research into what competitions are best suited for you. UK Writers have the BBC Writers Room. Another popular site for screenwriters is the Black List which aims to get the best unproduced screenplays read and made.

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This industry works on a who-knows-who basis. Attending networking events and putting yourself out there is necessary. The aim of attending a networking event is simply to meet people and let them all know that you are a screenwriter.

I created a list of places to find these events here however, make sure to research into events happening near you. People are more likely to hire you if they have met you in person.

Independent filmmaking

Another way of breaking into film is to head down the independent route. This could mean making your own films, or finding indie producers/directors to help you make it. You might not be able to sell a screenplay to Hollywood straight away however, you could write a low budget short or web series.

Stage 6 - How to get hired

Through reading this guide you will understand a lot more details on how to become a screenwriter.

You will need to develop your talent in your spare time. You will need spec script examples. To get hired you might also need to find contacts in the industry through working as a writers assistant or from networking and entering script competitions.

Full-time Writer Jobs - Full-time screenwriting jobs are mainly for TV (these could be rolling contracts). Especially recurring TV series such as soap operas and day time shows. These jobs are advertised on companies own websites. For UK screenwriters the BBC often hires check out the Writers Academy Course. Other full-time writers jobs might be for commercials and creative agencies.

Feature Film Jobs – Selling an original feature film script is especially difficult. This could happen later in your career after you have built your reputation as a writer. You will need to find an agent/manager which could lead to more work.

Sam Wilson goes into more detail on the differences between agents and managers here. Occasionally a win at a major script competition can lead to getting your film produced.

Drama Series Jobs – If you want to work on a drama series, perhaps for a TV company or Netflix. You need to once again have spec script examples, and perhaps work within the industry to make those right contacts.

Getting any writing job is about convincing people that you can be trusted to do the job well.

Independent Jobs – There are a lot of indie producers and directors are looking for screenplays. Through working on indie productions and networking, you could meet the right group of people to help you make your film. A successful indie film could lead to further opportunities as a writer.

I hope this guide helps you understand how to have a career as a screenwriter. It is not as simple as writing one screenplay and selling it straight to Hollywood. Screenwriting is a very competitive job role, you will need to convince producers you are a talented writer who can be trusted to do the job well.

Did I miss anything?

What type of screenwriter do you aspire to be?

Which of these work routes above will you be taking?

Let me know in the comments below right now -

Resources - Highlander 2 App | Scriptnotes Podcast | Any Possibility Blog |ScreenSkills Screenwriter Job Description | BBC Writers Room |No Film School - How to sell a screenplay